Report (1st Day)

Part of European Union Bill – in the House of Lords at 6:45 pm on 8th June 2011.

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Photo of Lord Hannay of Chiswick Lord Hannay of Chiswick Chair, EU Sub-Committee F - Home Affairs 6:45 pm, 8th June 2011

My Lords, I support the amendment. It seems to me that it addresses an issue which desperately needs addressing in the Bill, and that is flexibility. The structure of the Bill, particularly in its elaborate nature, with the 56 possible incidences of referenda, is, frankly, a couch of Procrustes, on which we are busy stretching ourselves and on which, no doubt, our feet or our heads will one day be lopped off. It is very rigid indeed. It leaves very little appreciation to the Government of the day, although of course the Government of the day will have had to agree in Brussels that, in principle, subject to the proceedings in this Bill, they will go along with it. However, then the rigidity comes back in. It is not surprising in a way. The Government proudly call this Bill a referendum lock, the key of which they have taken out and are now throwing out of the window.

I think this amendment is one way to deal with the issue and earlier today we discussed others. I very much welcome the fact that the Government recognise that, in the handling of this "or otherwise support" issue, they needed a bit more flexibility and they have now moved an amendment, which I was delighted to see went through unopposed, which gives a little more flexibility. It enables a Minister in Brussels to say that he would take something back to London and subject it to the procedures under the Bill, but that he would support it. It enables him to say that but, of course, it does not allow it to go through in any legal sense. That is an increase in flexibility. We have just voted for an increase in flexibility for Parliament because, if less than 40 per cent of the British people are prepared to get off their backsides and vote, then Parliament will be able to take a decision itself and the result of the referendum will be only advisory.

It would be splendid if the Government would think a little more about how to introduce more flexibility into the Bill, while not removing the essence of it. I accept that it is supported by a majority in the House of Commons and that it is in the coalition agreement, which says that, if there are major constitutional changes, there will be a referendum. As the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, said, the recommendations of our own Constitution Committee are rather clear on this point but were ignored by the Government. The noble Lord, Lord Howell, quoted the bit he liked, but did not quote the bit he did not like in the Constitution Committee's report. That was a much longer bit, which said that referendums should be used only for major constitutional innovations. If you look at the various clauses of the Bill, you will see that there are stacks of things there which are not major constitutional innovations. This provision will give a little more flexibility there, and I hope that the Government will seriously consider that because flexibility will be needed somewhere down the line. The more care taken with the legislation, the better that legislation will be for the interests of this country.